Written by Alex Frisby and Katharine Wootton
It’s hard to believe it’s more than 40 years since Esther Rantzen rose to fame in the hugely popular magazine-style TV series, That’s Life! Championing the rights of consumers was one of the hallmarks of the BBC show which made Esther a household name.
But when it finished in 1994, Esther certainly didn’t put her feet up. Her campaigning still continued when she went on to found ChildLine and later The Silver Line, a helpline for older people. She even stood for Parliament in 2009.
But in real life, Esther says she doesn’t quite cut the larger-than-life character people expect. “The main misconception people have about me is that I’m six feet tall,” says Esther light-heartedly. “They’re very disappointed when I turn up a meagre five foot four at best, for which I can only apologise. I don’t like letting people down.”
Letting us down is surely an accusation no one could pin on the lady who’s given life-changing support to so many people over her career. Almost 30 years on from creating ChildLine– and two years after The Silver Line was born – her projects are still paying dividends. So much so that earlier this year, Esther turned Dame Rantzen as she was rewarded for her incredible work.
Thanks to Esther, today more than 1,200 volunteer Silver Line friends help hundreds of older people break through loneliness and isolation with her dedicated support line.
I've got three grandchildren and I love every second I spend with them
“Last Christmas, we had some incredibly moving calls at The Silver Line. I talked to one brave man in his 60s who said it’d been years since he spoke to anyone on Christmas Day and he often went several weeks between proper conversations. He’d been a carer for his father until his death and suddenly found himself alone. It’s extremely moving talking to people who’ve given so much in their lives but now find themselves too proud to ask for help.
"It’s important to get across that it’s not a failure for people to call us for help. The line is open 24 hours a day, because we know if you are bereaved or lonely you may feel particularly sad at night. We do get most of our calls after 5.30pm and over the weekend, when everyone else is usually busy doing things. Loneliness is no respecter of time or place. It can strike anyone at any time.
“I also think loneliness is also about loss. You can be alone and quite happy. But when you lose a partner, your sight, your mobility, a job, or even a driving licence, which might cost you your independence, you feel you don’t know what your life is about anymore. I know – I’ve felt that myself.”
Personal sadness struck for Esther in 2000 when she lost her husband, TV producer Desmond Wilcox, after years of suffering from heart disease. Nowadays, she’s an ambassador for the British Heart Foundation and champions their life-saving research.
“I’m so passionate about the British Heart Foundation because of the extra 15 years they gave Desi. Though he still died far too early at 69, at least we had that extra time, which I credit to the advances in cardiology and coronary care.”
And while Esther says the pain of grief caused by Desi’s death hasn’t gone away (“you just find ways of living with it”) the Rantzen family now have three little lights of joy to keep them busy. “I’ve got three grandchildren and I love every second I spend with them. My eldest is Benji, who’s three, and I follow him around slavishly. He often wags his finger at me and says ‘now, Etter’ which is his name for me. My main ambition in life is to go to the weddings of my three grandsons. I’m starting to put a big fence around my weekends so I can spend as much time with them as possible – these moments are so precious.
“It’s crucial that my family and friends remember me with love and amusement. As for the public, the work of ChildLine and The Silver Line are both part of my DNA and I’m sure they’ll be remembered. But roaming the streets of the UK, asking daft questions in That’s Life! was fun too!”
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